Swimmer Lia Thomas becomes NCAA's first transgender D-I champion in any sport

Penn swimmer Lia Thomas won the women's 500-yard freestyle championship on Thursday to become the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history.

She finished the race in 4:33.24, beating Virginia's Emma Weyant by 1.75 seconds. The time fell short of Katie Ledecky's NCAA-record time of 4:24.06.

Thomas used to compete on the Penn men's team before transitioning and competing as a woman for the first time this season. Her eligibility has come under scrutiny with critics arguing that she has an unfair advantage in the pool after she went through male puberty. She met NCAA standards to compete as a woman after undergoing testosterone suppression therapy for more than two years.

Since joining the women's team, Thomas has broken two school records and posted the fastest times in the country in the 200 and 500-yard freestyle events. Now she's an NCAA champion.

Thomas addressed the scrutiny on Thursday while speaking with ESPN from Atlanta's McAuley Aquatic Center, the site of the NCAA competition.

"I try to ignore it as much as I can," Thomas said. "I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races. Just try to block out everything else."

Among the critics of Thomas' eligibility are 16 of her Penn teammates. They sent a letter in February signed by 1984 Olympic gold medalist and chief executive of women’s sports advocacy organization Champion Women Nancy Hogshead-Makar urging Penn and the Ivy League to reconsider her eligibilty.

“We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman," the letter read. "Lia has every right to live her life authentically. However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.

"Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female. If she were to be eligible to compete against us, she could now break Penn, Ivy, and NCAA Women’s Swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.”

The Penn swimmers who endorsed the letter remained anonymous.

Mar 17, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Penn Quakers swimmer Lia Thomas holds a trophy after finishing first in the 500 free at the NCAA Womens Swimming & Diving Championships at Georgia Tech. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Lia Thomas holds her NCAA trophy on Thursday (Brett Davis/Reuters)

Stanford swimmer and Olympic silver medalist Brooke Forde is among the supporters of Thomas' eligibility. She said in January that she doesn't have a problem competing against Thomas.

"I would not wish this experience on anyone, especially Lia who has followed the rules required of her," Forde said in a January statement. "I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.”

Thomas is scheduled to compete in the upcoming 100 and 200 freestyle events at the NCAA championships.